Serious injuries from dog and cat bites are on the rise, but experts say the reasons have less to do with the animals and more to do with the irresponsibility of pet owners.
On the morning of April 24, 1997, Christopher Wilson, 11, stood with his younger brother, Terrell, 8, waiting for a school bus in rural Milford, Kansas. Suddenly, three rottweilers owned by a neighbor approached. Terrified, the two boys raced for a nearby clump of trees for safety. But when Christopher climbed out of the trees to run for help, the three powerful dogs attacked him. As the school bus driver and 20 classmates looked on, the dogs mauled Christopher to death. Later, police killed the dogs and arrested their two owners. In March 1998, one of the owners was sentenced to 12 years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder. The other owner avoided prison by pleading no contest to involuntary manslaughter.
A serious threat
Attacks on humans by domesticated animals are a growing public health problem. Bites and scratches have become a major source of physical trauma and infection in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, reported in 1997 that the number of dog bites prompting people to seek medical care increased by 37 percent between 1986 and 1994. According to the CDC, as many as 4.5 million dog bites take place each year in the United States, with more than half the attacks involving children. Approximately 20 people are killed each year, and an estimated 800,000 people require medical attention following dog attacks. Additionally, more than 500,000 people seek treatment for cat bites and scratches, according to the CDC.
In January 1998, researchers from Allegheny University of the Health Sciences in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, published a study reporting that dog bites are the second most common injury treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments. Each year from 1992 to 1994, about 334,000 dog bites were treated in emergency rooms, ranking just behind the 404,000 baseball and softball injuries cared for there. The most common victims of these serious bites were children aged 5 to 9, who were often bitten on the head or neck. Four percent of the people in the study who received emergency care had to be admitted to the hospital for further treatment.
Reasons why pets attack
The public health hazard of pet bites could be reduced substantially if pet owners followed certain guidelines in choosing, training, and caring for their pets. And people could lessen their risk of attack if they learned how to act when approached by an aggressive animal.
Some experts have linked the increase of serious dog bites to the rising popularity of typically aggressive breeds of dogs such as rottweilers and pit bull terriers. However, breeds less known for their aggressiveness, such as cocker spaniels and golden retrievers, have also attacked humans. In addition to a dog’s breed, the dog’s age and gender may play a role in its aggressive tendencies. Statistics indicate that young adult dogs are more likely to bite than older dogs, and that males are more likely to bite than females. Aggressiveness increases, however, in females that are nursing puppies, because the mother dog has strong protective instincts.
Although breed, gender, and age may contribute to aggressiveness, most experts agree that humans are primarily responsible for the bad behavior of their pets. Animals will not curb their aggressive instincts until they are trained and socialized by their owners. Some pet owners may contribute to the problem by encouraging their pets to be aggressive toward strangers. A dog owner, for example, may praise a dog when it barks at passersby—thereby reinforcing that behavior and promoting even more aggression. A person who wants his or her dog to act as a watchdog must learn to strike a balance between encouraging desirable protective behavior and discouraging unwanted hostile behavior.
Most dogs have an instinctive territorial desire to protect their owners’ households. In fact, 70 percent of all dog bites occur on the dog owner’s property, according to the CDC. Another indication of the prevalence of dog bites near homes comes from the U.S. Postal Service, which estimates that about 3,000 mail carriers are attacked and bitten by dogs each year. And dog attacks represent about one-third of the money paid through homeowners’ liability claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute, an organization that represents 350 large insurance companies.
Health risks of bites and scratches
Infection of bite wounds is the most common health problem resulting from dog and cat bites. Infection leads to the formation of abscesses (pus-filled swellings) in the wound area. In some cases, an infection can spread to different areas near the wound site, causing inflammation of a joint and damage to tendons.
Bites from dogs and cats can spread numerous diseases to people. Rabies, one of the best-known and most deadly diseases related to animal bites, is caused by a virus that infects the brain. If rabies patients do not receive a series of antirabies vaccinations, most eventually die from cardiac or respiratory failure. Prompt intervention is necessary, because the virus can be killed only in the early stages of infection. Although bites from unvaccinated dogs and cats can lead to rabies, most cases of rabies in the United States are caused by bites from such wild animals as bats, skunks, and foxes. Fortunately, deaths from rabies are extremely rare in the United States.
Another disease that can result from dog and cat bites is tetanus, or lockjaw, which is caused by a bacterium that infects the central nervous system. Symptoms include stiffness of muscles and muscle spasms. Tetanus can be fatal in people who have not received vaccinations to immunize them against the disease, though antibiotics are sometimes successful in treatment after symptoms set in. Fortunately, most children in the United States have been vaccinated. Adults can protect themselves against tetanus by getting booster vaccinations every 10 years.
Although more people seek medical attention for dog bites than cat bites, cat attacks are sometimes more harmful. Cat teeth are much sharper than dog teeth and can push dangerous bacteria deeper into the flesh. Cats’ mouths also usually contain more of the bacterium Pasteurella multocida, which can cause serious infections. In addition, cats tend to roam at night, so they have more opportunity to get in scuffles with skunks and other animals and are more likely than dogs to contract diseases, such as rabies, that can be passed on to their owners.
Cat scratches can also cause problems for owners. Each year, more than 22,000 people in the United States contract a bacterial infection called cat scratch disease, or cat scratch fever, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Symptoms of the disease, which can linger for months, include fever, swollen lymph nodes, and joint pain. Despite its name, the disease can be transmitted by cat bites as well as by scratches.
Treating injuries from animals
Although all bites and scratches have the potential of spreading disease and infection, most wounds can be treated without the help of a physician. If the bite or scratch breaks only the skin, health authorities recommend that the wound be washed thoroughly with soap and water and covered with a loose, sterile bandage.
Bites or scratches that penetrate through the skin and into the muscle can pose a serious health threat. Seek professional medical care if the wound is bleeding excessively, there are signs of infection (such as redness, pain, swelling, and drainage), or the health condition of the attacking animal is unknown.
Following a bite, contact a police or animal-control officer. They will try to find the owner and check records to determine if the animal has been vaccinated against rabies. Unless it can be proven that the animal does not have rabies—through a record of vaccination, a 10-day observation period during which the animal is confined and checked for signs of disease, or an examination of the dead animal’s brain—the bite victim will need a complete series of rabies immunization shots.
If the bite victim has not been immunized against tetanus within the previous 10 years, he or she will also need a tetanus booster shot. In addition, a doctor may prescribe oral antibiotics to protect against infection.
Prevention of bites and scratches
Most bites can be prevented through proper selection and training of a pet. And people can protect themselves from attacks by learning how to behave around strange animals and by teaching appropriate behavioral techniques to their children.
Before buying a pet, an individual needs to consider his or her home situation and lifestyle. For example, if small children are present in a home, it may be best to avoid buying a large dog that has been bred to have an aggressive nature. And because certain dog breeds tend to develop disagreeable personalities if left alone too often, the potential owner should consider the amount of time family members spend away from home.
Veterinarians and breeders can help an individual choose the right pet. Veterinarians generally have a broad knowledge of many animals and their temperaments and can offer valuable advice in selecting a pet. Breeders are usually able to provide detailed information on an animal’s parents—information that could help indicate the temperament and personality of the animal.
Training is key
The manner in which a pet is trained and socialized has a huge impact on how the animal acts around people. Experts recommend that dog owners begin training their puppies as early as 8 to 10 weeks—avoiding such harsh training methods as shock collars (radio-controlled devices used to administer electrical shocks to dogs). The key time for socializing a dog is between 12 weeks and 4 months. Introducing a dog to many different people during this time can go a long way toward preventing dog bites. Some veterinarians recommend that puppies be enrolled in “puppy kindergarten” classes to help them socialize with people and other dogs.
After a puppy has grown, continued obedience training helps reinforce the owner’s leadership over the dog, and it also discourages the dog from expressing natural, aggressive impulses. Although many dogs like to play aggressively, owners should be aware that aggressive games may encourage behavior that could end up hurting someone.
Even cats can be trained to modify certain undesirable behaviors, provided that the training begins when the cat is young. One way to discourage biting and scratching is to squirt a cat with water as punishment. A cat may be less likely to work out its aggressive tendencies on house guests (and furniture) if it is trained to use a scratch post when still a kitten. Rubbing catnip on a post usually helps encourage a cat to use it.
Other prevention methods
Not all steps to prevent animal bites involve complicated training procedures. Obeying local leash laws, building a fence around a yard where a dog is kept, and posting “Beware of Dog” signs on property are simple precautions that could help prevent someone from getting bitten by a dog. Cat owners have the option of preventing cat scratches by getting their pets declawed.
Proper medical care of a pet can also reduce the threat posed by bites and scratches. An animal that has been spayed or neutered (had its sexual organs removed) often has a lowered level of aggressiveness. Renewing immunizations regularly, especially for rabies, will help keep a pet healthy so that it will be less likely to pass a disease on to people.
Besides keeping a pet healthy, an owner must also keep the pet happy. A contented animal is less likely to show aggression. The easiest way to keep a pet in a good mood is by giving it plenty of love and attention. In some cases, an owner may want to buy a second animal to keep the first one company.
Pets and children
Even when an owner does all the right things in choosing, training, and caring for a pet, that pet may still bite someone. Inappropriate actions of people sometime provoke an otherwise friendly animal to bite. Children are the most common victims of pet bites and scratches. Their boisterous behavior can frighten an animal into attacking. A pet may misinterpret a hug from a child as a threatening gesture and will bite or scratch in self-defense. In addition, large dogs may view children as prey. If a child runs away from a dog, the dog’s hunting instinct may cause it to chase and attack the child.
Pet experts warn that children need to be taught not to bother a pet when it is eating, sleeping, playing with a toy, or caring for puppies or kittens. Children should also be told never to play too rough with a dog or cat and always to ask the owner for approval to pet an unfamiliar animal. And the CDC advises that parents never leave a small child alone with a dog—even a trustworthy family pet.
Steps to avoid attack and injury
When a person encounters an unfamiliar, potentially aggressive dog, experts recommend the following steps to avoid injury. First, allow the dog to approach you and smell you. Observe the dog’s body language, looking for signs of aggression. Signs that a dog feels threatened and is warning you off include pulled-back ears, a stiff tail, bared teeth, and a low growling. A dog demonstrating these characteristics is extremely sensitive to body movements. To appear as less of a threat, avoid direct eye contact with the dog, because some dogs can perceive this as a challenge. Keep an eye on the dog using your peripheral (side) vision. Do not strike or kick the dog, because this might prompt the dog to attack. Rather, speaking in a calm but firm voice, reassure the dog by saying such things as “hello, dog” or “good boy.” You can also try a command the dog might know, such as “sit” or “down.”
Watch for signs that the dog is about to attack. Such signs include raised ears and a raised tail, direct eye contact, and snapping jaws. Do not run, because running away will encourage the dog to think of you as prey. If the dog tries to bite you, attempt to feed it clothing, such as a shirt or jacket. Keeping its mouth occupied will prevent it from biting you. If the dog knocks you to the ground, cover your head with your arms and lie still.
Although people usually don’t have to worry about unfamiliar cats attacking them on the street, a cat that feels frightened may pose a threat. Frightened cats can be recognized by their arched backs, fluffed fur, and pulled-back ears. They may also be growling or hissing. To avoid being attacked, a person should not go near a cat in this condition.
The threat of rabies
It is important to avoid all animal bites, but it is especially important to avoid the bites of rabid animals. Signs that an animal has rabies include unusual behavior, such as staggering and appearing disoriented. Rabid animals may also be foaming saliva at the mouth. A person should keep a safe distance from such an animal, because a rabid animal is more likely to make an unprovoked attack. Animals that are suspected of having rabies should be immediately reported to the police or animal control officers.
Despite the potential dangers, the relationship that humans have with dogs and cats has been a source of much comfort and happiness for thousands of years. The dog attack on young Christopher Wilson and other such attacks by household pets are tragedies that should never happen. Responsible ownership of pets and smart behavior around strange animals are the two key ingredients needed to keep the association between humans and their animal companions a happy and rewarding one.
For further reading:
Dodman, Nicholas. The Cat Who Cried for Help: Attitudes, Emotions, and the Psychology of Cats. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1997.
Fox, Michael W. Superdog: Raising the Perfect Canine Companion. Howell Book House, Inc., 1996.
Milani, Myrna M. Catsmart: The Ultimate Guide to Understanding, Caring for, and Living with Your Cat. NTC Contemporary Publishing Co., 1998.
For additional information:
Nelson, Chris. Selecting the Best Dog for You. TFH Publications, Inc., 1997.
http://www.Dogs.net (Information about dogs, dog bites, and many links to related Web sites.)